7. Zidane is sent off famously and Italy win the World Cup on penalties – World Cup Final, Berlin, Germany, 2006
8 years earlier, Zinedine Zidane was the king of the world, as his startling performance under the lights of Paris helped France to the World Cup title for the first time in their history. But in 2006, ‘Zizou’, after once again guiding France to a World Cup final, was about to go down in history for the wrong reasons.
The story could of been so different. Zidane, the architect, the scientist, the magician, may not have even been on the pitch. 2 years earlier, after France’s shock exit to Portugal in Euro 2004, Zidane had decided to retire from international football. His statement that summer read ‘I have thought long and hard over this decision. I think that at a given moment you must say ‘stop’ … There have been some great players who retired in 2000 and 2002, other players are doing it and now I’m doing it.’
A year later, from the wilderness, Zidane released a statement following months of speculation and subsequent denial over an international return, confirming that indeed he would be returning to the stage. He stated “For the very first time in my life I have decided to go back on my word which is very important for me. When I made the decision to retire I was very serious – today I have made the same decision but in reverse.”
Raymond Domenech, the France manager, was understandably ecstatic as Zidane wasn’t alone in his return; he was joined by Lillian Thuram and Claude Makélélé. The trio gave the nation an urgently needed boost coinciding with a stuttering World Cup qualification campaign which had seen Domenech slaughtered in some circles in France. France had suffered goalless home draws against Israel, Ireland and Switzerland and with only four games left to go, trailed Ireland by three points in their qualification group. The return of the three boosted France considerably; the remaining four fixtures resulted in a return of 10 points, French qualification and a nation breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Before the tournament, Zidane had another statement to make. This year would be his last. “I have to listen to my body and I cannot carry on for another year. I think it is better to clarify the situation now. I have been thinking about it for a long time. It’s been three years since we [Madrid] won anything and in two of those, I’ve not played as I’ve wanted. I am not going to play any better than I have done in the past. I don’t want to just play for Real Madrid for the sake of it”, he clarified.
The group stage offered little in the way of a reprieve from the qualification’s poor early form. While other nations qualified for the knockout stages with ease, France stumbled to two draws in their first two games. In the second game against South Korea, Zidane was substituted following a subdued display behind Henry. The World Cup legend, three time FIFA player of the year, looked a shadow of his former self. In the final game against Togo, France comfortably beat their lesser opponents, albeit without Zidane who’s two yellow cards had seen him suspended for the fixture.
The last 16 game saw an encounter with neighbours Spain, who’d shown glimpses of the promise that would clinch the next two European Championships and the World Cup in between four years later. Many people had thought Spain would finally live up to their promise, especially with the shaky French form. But Zidane had other plans. With 7 minutes remaining, the talisman stepped up and delivered a pinpoint free kick into the box for Patrick Vieira to nod home. France had one hand on the quarter final.
As Spain pressed for an equaliser, Zidane picked the ball up and drifted into Spain territory in injury time, cut inside Carlos Puyol and fired the ball between Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas and his near post to take France through; where the following round would see a rematch of the final of World Cup 98.
The match saw Zidane control things from the off. Cutting his way through yellow shirts, delivering the free kick to the vulnerable Brazilian far post on 56 minutes, playing keep-up with the ball whilst holding off Kaka and controlling and caressing the ball around the pitch; a standard night for one of the greatest players of his generation.
The semi-final pitted Les Bleus against a Portuguese side, baying for revenge after a 2-1 defeat at the same stage in Euro 2000. Thierry Henry, with the game poised at 1-1, showed no hesitation in hitting the ground following a challenge from Ricardo Carvalho. Zizou stepped up and slotted the ball past England’s nemesis Ricardo in the Portuguese goal to take France through 2-1.
From retirement two years previously, returning & rescuing his nation’s fortunes during qualifying and now guiding his nation past the world’s best, Zidane was hitting key form at just the right time. The final was set to be a classic against historic rivals Italy. Strange to think that many had ran polls and debated whether Zidane should even be in the France starting XI following the group stages.
A tense affair, had gone to extra time following a sublime chipped penalty by Zidane and an equaliser from Marco Materazzi; those two hasn’t made their only contributions of the night however.
As the match approached penalties, pandemonium ensued. Off camera, something had happened. Gianluigi Buffon raced from the Italian goal to the officials pointing and gesturing towards the melee that had erupted behind him. Materazzi was rolling around on the floor, Zidane had walked in the opposite direction looking cool, calm and unnerved. It seems nobody saw the incident other than a handful on the Berlin turf. Following a brief chat to his assistants, the referee approached Zidane and brandished a red card – the greatest player in French football’s modern era had ended his career in the worst possible light. Despite his protests and claiming provocation, Zidane was on his way.
Numerous videos and clips immediately followed. Materazzi had muttered words to Zidane, who’d started to walk away, only to sharply turn and sink his forehead into the chest of Materazzi sending the Italian sprawling to the turf. Why? Was the question. It wasn’t immediately apparently but later Materazzi admitted that he said “I prefer the whore that is your sister,” to deliberately provoke Zidane. “I tried not to listen to him but he repeated them several times,” explained Zidane. “Sometimes words are harder than blows. When he said it for the third time, I reacted.”
All of the elegance and grace that had captivated the world when Zidane was given the ball had disappeared and for some reason he snapped; Italy went onto win the tournament on penalties. David Trezeguet, the golden goal hero of Euro 2000 when Italy were defeated in the final, became the sole player to miss his penalty allowing Italy to triumph 5-3.
The two memorable images of the final regarding Zidane are below. One, of the offence, the other, speaks for itself…